More than $2.6 billion dollars in financial aid went unawarded in 2018.

$2.6 billion dollars! 

That’s why it’s so important for students and their families to complete the FAFSA application before graduation (and every year!) in order to qualify for need-based aid and even many merit-based programs. Not sure where to start? 

This guide answers your FAFSA questions and more.

What is the FAFSA?

The FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It’s the application students and families must complete to be eligible for any kind of federal student aid, including grants, work-study, and loans. Many states, colleges, universities, and private foundations also use the FAFSA to determine qualifications for merit awards. 

Every student planning to enroll in a post-secondary education program should complete the FAFSA. Even if you think your family income prevents you from receiving need-based aid, many merit-based programs require completion of the FAFSA.

When is the FAFSA due? 

FAFSA applications open nationwide October 1 with closing dates (January 15-July 1) that differ by state and by college or university. Use this resource from Federal Student Aid to see your state’s deadlines

Students and parents must use their own individual FSA ID to log in, and each will need his or her own social security number to get started. 

Some states like Illinois, Louisiana, and Texas require the completion of a FAFSA application as a high school graduation requirement. This can be a good way to ensure students receive all the financial aid possible!

How often do I apply for the FAFSA? 

One of the biggest things students overlook during their first year of college is that they forget to apply for the FAFSA again! Make sure you apply to the FAFSA early and every year. 

Historically, students who applied in the first three months received twice as much grant money as those who waited to apply until spring. Completing the FAFSA early also helps you apply earlier to schools. 

If you are a first-time FAFSA filer, you and your parents must separately apply for an FSA ID prior to completing the FAFSA. It can take several business days to process your FSA ID. Make sure you have your social security number handy. Write down your FSA ID and password and keep them somewhere safe—you’ll need them again next year!

The moral of the story? Don’t wait to complete the FAFSA. You might miss out on valuable financial aid and grants.

How do you add schools to the FAFSA?

When you complete your FAFSA, you can select up to ten schools to receive your FAFSA information. Counselors recommend that you send to all ten! To do so, search by state first, and then select the school. Some universities list every college under their name—be careful to select the main institution. If you want to send to more than ten schools, wait until you receive confirmation your FAFSA application has been processed or mailed to those schools, then log in again, delete the previous schools, add the new list, and re-submit.

Doublecheck for errors on your FAFSA

Before you submit your FAFSA application, double-check for accuracy. A small error on your application could cause processing delays, potentially decreasing your aid award. Approximately 30% of FAFSA filers are elected for verification, which can also cause delays.

To avoid verification, use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, which is considered verified data. If selected for verification, you’ll need to submit a signed copy of your tax return or a signed statement explaining why you don’t file a tax return. You’ll still need to have your parents’ previous year’s tax return and your tax return/W-2 available to enter some additional details.

Names and addresses need to match exactly those on your tax returns, or your FAFSA acceptance may be delayed. You can save your FAFSA application and return later to complete—just don’t forget to finish!

Tips for your FAFSA application

The FAFSA might feel like an overwhelming step in the college admissions process. Here are a few tips to remember as you fill out the FAFSA. 

  • The FAFSA assesses 20% of student assets, while the rate is 5.64% for parents—and for all College Savings Plans. Therefore, your parents’ savings and savings in College Savings Plans are advantageous over student savings.
  • Any savings in retirement accounts belonging to parents (or the student) are NOT assessed by the FAFSA. So maximize savings in retirement accounts.
  • A student who lives over 50% of time with the parent with lower income will have a lower Expected Family Contribution on the FAFSA. The FAFSA does not collect income/home equity/assets from the noncustodial parent.
  • Avoid income boosts during college years such as cashing out retirement plans and stock options.
  • The U.S. Department of Education offers several resources including a step-by-step timeline and a preview worksheet.

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With your FAFSA application filed, you’re on your way to becoming a college graduate with minimal debt.

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